Four Regulatory Reforms Obama Should Urge in Financial Speech

Lehman Brothers is dead; long live Lehman Brothers. Exactly one year after the ill-fated financial colossus filed for bankruptcy, spurring weeks of economic chaos and months of crippling recession, the verdict is in: little has changed in the culture of Wall Street.

With that in mind, President Obama is set to mark the anniversary of Lehman's collapse today with a "major" speech that, he hopes, will reinvigorate efforts to overhaul the banking system. Congressional enthusiasim for reform proposals introduced by the White House earlier this summer has stalled, beaten back by a vicious health care debate and industry opposition. So, just after noon at New York's Federal Hall, located in the heart of the financial district, Obama will seek to shift the focus back to the Street. The timing is just as significant as the location; in a little over a week, the G20 will meet in Pittsburgh, presenting a do-or-die opportunity to get the world's economic movers and shakers on one page. Press secretary Robert Gibbs has said the president doesn't plan to introduce any brand new proposals, but, if the White House is serious about pushing through meaningful reforms, here are a few points Obama might hammer home today:

  • Let Them Hold Cash: Basic capital requirements are at the root of Obama's regulatory plan. As Cornell economist Robert Frank pointed out this Sunday, existing regulations prohibit banks from leveraging their investments by more than 10 to 1. The loophole, of course, is that other financial institutions are exempt from that limit. Tim Geithner is trying to convince his colleagues at the G20 that capital requirements will work best if there's international consensus. But European banks have even fewer requirements, so leaders like Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are eager to shift the debate over to bank size limits and executive pay caps. Geithner is in the right on the money on this one, though. As University of Chicago economist Luis Zingales recently pointed out (in a highly critical article, to boot), the other measures simply "soothe popular rage" without implementing any truly pro-market underlying reforms. Obama should say this loud and clear before the G20 summit.
  • ID the Too-Big-to-Fail-ers: Henry Paulson best embodied the panic of last September when, in that fateful White House meeting, he got down on bended knee to beg Nancy Pelosi to push bailout measures through Congress. But didn't need to go down that way, says Elizabeth Warren, the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel. With neither a clear legal mandate to act nor the proper regulatory tools with which to do so, momentous decisions about which institutions to rescue were made ad hoc. Having a regulatory agency identify systemic risk in advance would mean such situations could be approached with some semblance of a plan. Plus, once they're identified, they can be hit up with targeted regulations--like extra-stringent capital requirements.
  • Bring Shadow Banking Into the Light: The over-the-counter derivatives market is one of Wall Street's most precious fiefdoms, representing $592 trillion of unregulated trade. The Obama team is determined to reign it in by mandating that OTC derivatives be processed through clearinghouses, traded on exchanges, and publicly priced. But negotiations on the details have occurred largely behind closed doors, and a regulatory turf war has emerged between the SEC and the CFTC over who gets to crack down on the shadow system. Obama should lay out exactly how he wants to see this done.
  • Regulate the Regulators: The White House already sent Congress a proposal for another of Elizabeth Warren's pet projects, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, back at the end of June. Industry reps, like those from the American Banking Association and Mortgage Bankers Association, have all but declared war on the idea, claiming the new agency, which would have the power to ban clauses in financial contracts and levy huge fines, would stifle innovation. But really, existing regulatory agencies were supposed to have been doing those things all along--and they failed. To give the plan some teeth, Obama should appoint inspectors to audit regulators, making sure they're looking out for the public's interests rather than their own. Even Larry Summers has pointed out that it's not wise to let banks pick their own regulators.

For an excellent look at the post-Lehman year in review, take a look at this collaborative documentary project from Reuters and Mediastorm.